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23

Inland’s Beautiful Queen

The story of Inland Steel’s Str. Wilfred Sykes actually began with the design of a new class of ships for U.S. Steel’s Pittsburgh Steamship Company. In 1947, officials of the Pittsburgh fleet announced tentative plans to build several new freighters, and they contracted with American Ship Building to develop the design for the new vessels. The staff at AmShip was delighted with the prospect. Shipbuilding on the lakes had ground to a halt in the aftermath of World War II. As tonnages fell off from the record levels moved during the war years, U.S. fleets found that the 404 ships afloat in 1945 were more than adequate to handle the post-war tonnages. Rather than adding new vessels, the fleets were actually disposing of many older ships.

In the months after signing the contract with the Pittsburgh fleet, the design team at AmShip developed construction schemes and specifications for the new class of tin-stackers. The resulting plans were based loosely on the designs used for the four ships of the Irvin-class that had been launched for the Pittsburgh fleet in 1938. The design that was finally unveiled to officials of the Pittsburgh fleet, however, was for a class of ships substantially larger and more powerful than the Irvin and her three sisters. In addition, plans for the new ships showed lines which were much more refined than those of any ships that had appeared on the lakes before.

While Pittsburgh Steamship officials were impressed with the proposed designs, they informed AmShip that they had decided to indefinitely delay their plans to build the new ships because they were uncertain about the future of the steel and shipping industries. Disappointed, officials at AmShip shelved their innovative plans.1 For hundreds of laid-off shipyard workers at Lorain, the news was devastating. Many of them were second- and third-generation shipbuilders. They and their families had been turning out magnificant ships at the Lorain yard since before the turn of the century. But as the bitter winds of winter descended on the lakes in late 1947, they began to seriously question whether they would ever build another ship.

STR. WILFRED SYKES

678’x70’2”x32’3”
Queen of the Lakes
June 28, 1949 to 1952

The pall of gloom that descended over the shipbuilding community at Lorain was to be shortlived. Only a few months after Pittsburgh Steamship’s decision to delay construction of the new class of ships, Inland Steel signed a contract with AmShip to design a new ore boat for their fleet. The laid-off shipyard workers in Lorain were ecstatic when they heard details of the contract. Inland’s instructions to AmShip were simple: they wanted the yard’s staff to design the largest possible freighter that could operate on the lakes, within the size restrictions imposed by the loading docks on the upper lakes, the locks at Sault Ste. Marie, and the drydocks then available. Inland wanted to see plans for “the best vessel the design department could conceive, without regard for tradition or past practice.”2 Seldom had naval architects been given such a free hand in the design of a new ship. Even cost wasn’t an overriding consideration for the designers. What Inland Steel wanted was not just plans for the biggest ship on the lakes, but plans for the ship of the future.

In the design rooms at American Ship Building, teams of naval architects dusted off the designs they had previously prepared for Pittsburgh Steamship. The work they had put in on those plans would not go to waste after all. They would be useful as a rudimentary starting point for the design of the Inland ship. The designs they had developed for the Pittsburgh fleet were the equivalent of plans for a 1948 Ford automobile. What Inland wanted were plans for a 1960 Cadillac. The innovative plans subsequently presented to Inland officials were just that.

By April of 1948, Inland had approved the plans and specifications, and contracts had been drafted. Construction orders were released in June, and the keel of the sophisticated new ship was laid at the Lorain yard on November l.3 Captain Henry Kaizer, senior captain in the Inland fleet, served as the owner’s representative at the shipyard. Kaizer was scheduled to take command of the new ship when it was ready to go into service.4

Among those who watched the new vessel take shape at Lorain during the winter and spring of 1949 was fifty-year-old George Fisher, an Inland captain who lived in Akron, Ohio. Fisher was an American success story. Born in 1898 in Ukraine, Fisher had emigrated to Canada in 1914, during the early days of World War I. His first job was at the shipyard in Port Arthur, Ontario, passing rivets during construction of the passenger steamer Noronic. Fisher worked ten hours a day for twenty cents an hour. The following year, the young immigrant moved to Minnesota to live with an uncle. After trying his hand at a number of different, rather menial jobs he signed on the Pittsburgh steamer James A. Farrell during the 1920 sailing season.

On his first trip on an ore boat, Fisher shovelled coal in the Farrell’s stifling hot boiler room, deep in the bowels of the ship, while the vessel rocked and rolled its way down the lakes in a major storm. The twenty-two-year-old fireman was no heavy-weather sailor, and he attempted to quit his job just as soon as the freighter returned to Duluth. Short on personnel, the captain of the Farrell refused to pay Fisher off, demanding that he make one more trip. Not wanting to lose the pay he had worked so hard for, and probably not understanding that under the law he had every right to quit the job and still get paid, he reluctantly agreed to make a second trip on the Pittsburgh freighter. The weather on that second passage must have been better, because Fisher finished out the 1920 season in the firehold of the Farrell.

Sailing proved to be more agreeable to Fisher than any employment he had been able to find on the beach, and he returned to the boats in the 1921 season. He had his fill of the long watches in the firehold, however, and shipped out as a deckhand on the Str. Australia. By 1924, Fisher had worked his way up to wheelsman. After writing the difficult Coast Guard exams during the winter of 1926-27, he obtained his license as a deck officer and sailed the following spring as a mate. After the Great Depression struck the shipping industry in 1930, thirty-two-year-old Fisher found that he didn’t have enough seniority to hold a job as a mate. In fact, with most of the ships in the Great Lakes fleet lying idle at docks around the lakes, there were years when he was happy to land an occasional job as a relief deckhand.

A big break came in 1936, when he was able to find a permanent job as a mate with the Inland Steel fleet. That first season with Inland, Fisher sailed aboard Inland’s Philip D. Block, a standard 600-footer very similar to the Farrell, on which he had first shipped as a coalpasser. His move to the Inland fleet came at an auspicious time. As the industry began to rebound from the Depression, Fisher moved up rapidly. During the 1941 season, he was appointed to his first command as captain on the N. F. Leopold.5 By the time construction began on the Sykes in 1948, the fifty-year-old Fisher was one of Inland’s senior captains. As he watched the magnificant Sykes taking shape at Lorain, it was with the full knowledge that one day in the not too distant future he would probably have an opportunity to command the big freighter. Ship assignments are normally based on seniority, with the most senior captain getting his choice of vessels. Fisher was near the top of Inland’s seniority list, and when the day came when he could claim command of any ship in the fleet, he would definitely choose the Sykes.

Fisher was out on the lakes when the Sykes was launched at Lorain at 11:35 a.m. on June 28, 1949. With Captain Henry Kaizer looking on, Mrs. Wilfred Sykes broke a bottle of champagne on the bow of the new Queen of the Lakes, named in honor of her husband. Like Captain Fisher, sixty-five-year-old Wilfred Sykes was an immigrant. Born in New Zealand in 1883, he had come to the U.S. via Germany, joining Inland Steel in 1932 as an electrical engineer. From then on, Sykes’s career can only be described as meteoric. After just nine years with the Chicago-based steelmaker, Sykes was named president of Inland in 1941. In the same year that the big freighter that bore his name was launched, Wilfred Sykes reached retirement age and stepped down from the presidency of Inland.6 Despite his remarkably successful career, few of the spectators who gathered at Lorain on June 28, 1949, recognized the namesake of the big steamer that went into the water that day. He was one of the anonymous giants of American industry. With the launching of the giant Inland freighter, however, Wilfred Sykes’s name became virtually a household word around the Great Lakes. In many respects, the new Queen of the Lakes represented the capstone of his brilliant career.

Unlike Wilfred Sykes, Captain George Fisher hadn’t yet reached the zenith of his career. As the shipping season of 1949 drew to a close, he was just another obscure steamboat captain, commanding a relatively nondescript ship. As Captain Fisher returned to his home in Akron, Ohio, to begin his long and much-needed winter vacation, Captain Henry Kaizer was finishing putting the Sykes through her sea trials in the waters off Lorain. Taking his new command out of the Black River and into Lake Erie for the first time must have been an exceptionally memorable occasion for Kaizer. During the preceding year, the Inland fleet’s senior captain had commanded only a desk. The only thing that had made the long months on the beach bearable for Kaizer was the fact that he could look out the window of his office each day and see the Sykes slowly taking shape on AmShip’s building berth.

The Sykes was his ship. It had been his ship when it was only a thick stack of blueprints. It had been his ship when it was nothing more than scattered piles of steel plate and beams in the AmShip yard. Even after the Inland Steel logo had been put on the massive streamlined stack and Wilfred Sykes’s name had been painted on its bow and stern, it was still Henry Kaizer’s ship. If the naval architects, shipfitters, welders, and rivetters at AmShip had any impression that the new vessel was theirs, it was totally dispelled on November 28, 1949, when the sturdy steel mooring cables were cast off for the first time and Captain Kaizer carefully inched the Sykes out onto Lake Erie. Even before the giant ship cleared the piers at the entrance to the Lorain harbor, it was clear to all that the Sykes was Henry Kaizer’s ship.

As he signalled the engine room to bring the Sykes to full lake speed for the first time, Captain Kaizer reached the pinnacle of his career. He was the master of the largest ship ever to sail the Great Lakes, a ship which had received an unparalleled amount of attention from the news media. And while captains of lake freighters normally go about their jobs in relative obscurity, command of the Sykes had brought Henry Kaizer an almost unprecedented degree of notoriety. The distinguished, elderly captain was often quoted in news reports, and everywhere he went people were eager to question him about the Sykes. On January 12, 1950, personnel at American Ship Building finished fine-tuning the new freighter’s machinery and officially turned the ship over to its owners. Captain Kaizer happily cleared out his desk at the shipyard and left Lorain, knowing that in less than three months he would be returning to fit out his ship for her first season of operations on the lakes.

Personnel who work on Great Lakes freighters seldom have any contact with their fleet offices during the winter months. After they leave their ships at the lay-up docks, they normally don’t hear anything from the fleet office until they receive their vessel assignment and fit-out notice in the spring. George Fisher was probably somewhat surprised, therefore, when he received a telephone call from Inland’s fleet manager well in advance of the 1950 sailing season. The call brought the shocking news that Captain Henry Kaizer had died and that he, George Fisher, would command the Sykes during the coming shipping season.7

Captain Fisher experienced mixed emotions when he reported to Lorain in late March of 1950 to assume command of the Sykes. He wished that his assignment to command the new Inland freighter had come as a result of different circumstances. Despite that, Fisher was thrilled with his new assignment and eager to get the season underway. It would be his thirty-first season on the lakes, his fifteenth with the Inland fleet. He had already achieved far more than he had ever thought possible when he first set foot on North American soil in 1914. Even after he had settled on a career as a merchant seaman, Fisher never for a moment thought that he would someday command his own ship, much less the newest, largest, and finest ship on the Great Lakes. The day he first walked aboard the Sykes at Lorain he must have known that he had made the right decision when he left his native Russia, that he had been right when he stayed on the Farrell for that second trip in 1920, when he shifted to the deck department the following season, and when he joined the Inland fleet in 1936. His years of hard work and plodding persistence had paid off handsomely. In 1950, he was captain of the Str. Wilfred Sykes, the Queen of the Lakes.

The $5 million Sykes had no equal on the lakes. At 678 feet in overall length, the new Inland freighter was thirty-eight feet longer than the Carl D. Bradley, the former Queen of the Lakes. Also wider and deeper than the big self-unloader, the Sykes was measured at a record 12,729 gross tons, compared to only 10,028 gross tons for the Bradley. The most powerful and fastest ship on the lakes, she quickly proved to be a superb carrier. Early in the 1950 season, Captain Fisher’s ship established a new cargo record for iron ore, then broke that record on two other occasions that same season. The Sykes set other cargo records during the 1951 and 1952 seasons, including a personal best of 21,223 tons of iron ore loaded at the Great Northern Railway’s dock near Superior, Wisconsin, on August 27, 1952.8 The Sykes’s greatest contribution to the Great Lakes shipping industry was not the size of her engines, her speed, her size, or even her carrying capacity, however. In 1952, her title as the longest ship on the lakes passed to Hanna’s Str. Joseph H. Thompson, a converted saltwater cargo vessel, which was also more powerful and faster than the Sykes. The following year, the cargo record set by the Sykes was broken by another new freighter. Since then, the dimensions and carrying capacity of the Sykes have been exceeded many times. Today, it is actually one of the smaller ships in the U.S. fleet. Yet the Inland freighter is still highly revered within the shipping community. The most enduring attribute of the Sykes proved to be her design. She is today esteemed as having been the prototype for virtually all of the ships launched on the lakes from 1950 until 1971.

The traditional Great Lakes bulk freighter pioneered by Captain Eli Peck with the launching of the little R. J. Hackett in 1869 reached perfection in the design of the Wilfred Sykes. While the new Inland freighter was clearly a descendant of the Hackett and the many generations of lakes ships built with their pilothouses at the bow and engine rooms at the stern, the lines of the Sykes were highly refined. To say that the Sykes was “streamlined” may be a bit of an overstatement, but it was certainly more streamlined than any conventional bulk freighter preceding it on the lakes. The most obvious example of streamlining in the design of the Sykes was the way in which her aft cabins were incorporated into the lines of her stern.

The stately...

The stately Wilfred Sykes being turned by steam-powered tugs in the outer harbor at Lorain, Ohio, on November 26, 1949, as it sets out for sea trials on Lake Erie. The massive Inland freighter was then under the command of Henry Kaizer, the senior captain in the fleet, who had personally supervised construction of the record-breaking ship. Kaizer died prior to the start of the 1950 shipping season, however, and when the streamlined Sykes departed on its maiden voyage up the lakes it was under the command of George Fisher. (Institute for Great Lakes Research, Bowling Green State University)

Until the Sykes, virtually each freighter on the lakes had a deckhouse that sat on top of the main deck at the stern, above the engine room. Within the stern deckhouse was the galley, dining rooms for the officers and unlicensed crewmembers, and cabins for galley and engine room personnel. On those vessels, the stern deckhouse did not extend all the way out to the bulwark,9 so the structure was surrounded by a walkway. All of the rooms in the deckhouse had doors opening onto the main deck, and crewmembers had to go out on deck when going to or coming from rooms located at the stern. That could be uncomfortable during periods of inclement weather and dangerous when seas were breaking over the deck.

On the Sykes, the stern deckhouse extended all the way out to the sides of the ship, and the hull plating was carried up to the top of the cabins to form the enclosed stern cabin. Rooms within the enclosed cabin area opened onto passageways within the deckhouse, so crewmembers did not have to go outside during bad weather. Since the forward deckhouse also had interior passageways and the bow and stern sections were connected by tunnels running below the main deck, it was possible for crewmembers on the Sykes to go anywhere on the ship without having to go outside. At the same time, because the hull plating was carried up one deck higher than normal at the stern, the ship was less likely to be damaged by heavy seas, particularly following seas. A second, slightly smaller cabin was located atop the stern on the poop deck level. It housed mainly the galley, crews’ messroom, officers’ dining room, owners’ dining room, and a stateroom for the steward. The poop deck cabin was surrounded by open deck where the ship’s two lifeboats were located. All of the traditional-style freighters built after the Sykes imitated the unique design of her enclosed stern.

The enclosed stern and poop deck house helped to balance the structures at the bow. By comparison, the enclosed forecastles and cabin structures on the forward end of most ships built before the Sykes made their bows look much more substantial than their sterns. The naval architects at AmShip who had designed the Sykes also used the smokestack to help give further balance to the bow and stern sections of the ship. The smokestack installed on the Sykes was a massive, sleek-looking structure. It was encircled by a distinctive, wide band of stainless steel that bore the Inland logo, and the ship’s whistles were neatly recessed into the stack.

The streamlined stack...

The streamlined stack of the Wilfred Sykes bears the red Inland Steel logo on a band of polished stainless steel. The large stack casing used on the Sykes was intended as a visual balance to the mass of the pilothouse located at the bow. (Author’s collection)

At the bow, the stem was raked forward more than usual, while the forward end of the pilothouse and its overhanging roof were sloped gracefully backward. The masts at the bow and stern were similarly sloped backward, and both were freestanding, while the masts on most ships were supported by stays. The ladder that led to the top of the after mast was recessed into the mast itself, giving it an unusually clean look. AmShip designers had gone to extraordinary lengths to eliminate the clutter normally seen on lake freighters. To the maximum feasible degree, the array of stays, pipes, tanks, ventilators, and ladders that normally muddle the decks were incorporated into the major structural elements of the ship, contributing to the streamlined appearance of the Sykes.

Her sleek lines were further accentuated by a new painting scheme developed by Inland and first used on the Sykes. A narrow, white, sheer-stripe band ran the entire length of the hull at the main deck level, topping off the rust-red hull. The bulwarks at the bow and stern that rose above the main deck were painted grey, topped by a second band of white at the bow. The cabins were painted a brilliant white. AmShip officials had at first balked at the mandated painting scheme, which was much more elaborate than that used on other ships. They argued that crewmembers would probably not be able to maintain the bands of grey and white and recommended instead that the entire hull be painted red right up to the top of the bulwarks.10 To the surprise of the people at AmShip, and to the delight of officials at Inland, the crews aboard the Sykes and their other vessels in the Inland fleet seemed to readily adopt the new “white stripe” painting scheme. It is still used aboard Inland’s ships today and remains the most distinctive painting scheme on the lakes.

While Captain George Fisher has long since left the lakes, the Sykes is still in operation. It is accorded special deference by both sailors and boatwatchers, although many rue the fact that Inland had the Sykes converted to a self-unloader during the winter of 1974-75. The addition of the self-unloading equipment destroyed the effect of the unusually high degree of streamlining achieved by her designers.11 The long sweep of the Sykes’s deck was broken by the installation of a self-unloading boom and the massive, boxy casing of the vertical elevator that carries cargo out of the hold and up to the level of the boom. Unlike configurations on the Bradley and most other self-unloaders on the lakes at that time, the vertical elevator and boom on the Sykes are located at the after end of her cargo hold, instead of directly behind the forward deckhouse. To accommodate the unloading machinery under the cargo hold and still maintain the maximum carrying capacity, the Sykes’s last two hatches were also raised high above the level of the deck, forming what is referred to as a “trunk,” located just ahead of the stern deckhouse. The elevator casing and unloading boom are located on top of the trunk, with the boom extending forward, well above the level of the main deck.

Between 1973 and 1975, Kinsman Marine, American Steamship, Litton Great Lakes, and Columbia Transportation had built a number of new ships with stern-mounted, self-unloading systems. All of the U.S. ships converted to self-unloaders prior to the Sykes, however, had their unloading systems in the traditional location just behind the forward deckhouse. All of the ships converted to self-unloaders since 1975 have had their unloading equipment at the stern.

The self-unloading system installed on the Sykes also included several other innovations. Instead of the traditional bucket or conveyor elevator systems, the Sykes was equipped with a highly efficient loop belt elevator. Developed by Stephens-Adamson of Belleville, Ontario, a subsidiary of Allis-Chalmers Canada, the first loop belt system had been installed in 1971 on CSL’s J. W. McGiffin. Before the conversion of the Sykes, the Henry Ford II was the only U.S. ship with this system. In the loop belt system, cargo is sandwiched tightly between two conveyor belts rising vertically out of the hold of the ship. The loop belt elevator takes up less hold space than other elevator systems and operates at higher unloading rates. With the loop belt elevator system, the Sykes could unload at six thousand tons per hour, far in excess of even the most efficient shore-based unloading equipment.

The unloading boom installed on the Sykes was of tubular steel construction, rather than angle iron. Tubular steel booms had made their debut on the lakes in 1965, used first in the conversions of Columbia’s Joseph H. Frantz and Gartland Steamship’s Nicolet. The tubular booms were substantially lighter than those built of angle iron. Like booms on the Frantz and Nicolet, the thirty-ton boom on the Sykes was elevated and moved laterally by hydraulic cylinders that replaced the more traditional A-frames and complex systems of cables and winches. Tubular booms and hydraulic positioning systems were used on all subsequent self-unloaders.12

While use of...

While use of the term “streamlined” to describe the Wilfred Sykes may be stretching things a little, the Inland freighter was much sleeker in appearance than any previous laker. Designers of the unique ship managed to eliminate much of the clutter normally seen on the decks of freighters. While the basic design of the Sykes became a model for most conventional ore boats built after her, few shipping companies were willing to bear the extra expense that Inland accepted in order to build a ship that was both functional and aesthetically attractive. (Author’s collection)

Somewhat facetiously, the decade of the 1950s has been identified with “the coming of the whales” on the Great Lakes.13 Not only was the Sykes the first of those whales, but the many elements of her unique design had a great impact on the ships launched after her. Few of the fleets launching new ships were willing to go to the added expense that Inland had done to make their new vessels aethetically pleasing, but all of them borrowed at least some design elements from the innovative Sykes. She was indeed a ship for the future.

Notes

  1.  Pittsburgh Steamship finally decided to go ahead with the construction of four new ships in 1949, about the time that the Sykes was ready for launching. Pittsburgh’s AAA-class steamers, the John G. Munson, Arthur M. Anderson, Cason J. Calloway, and Philip R. Clarke, came out in 1952.

  2.  Walter C. Cowles, “A Decade of Great Ships: 1948–1958,” Inland Seas 45, no. 3 (Fall 1989): 197.

  3.  E. B. Williams, Kent C. Thornton, W. R. Douglas, and Paul Miedlick, “Design and Construction of Great Lakes Bulk Freighter Wilfred Sykes,” reprint of an article that originally appeared in Marine Engineering and Shipping Review (June 1950), 5.

  4.  Cowles, 197.

  5.  The Leopold was renamed the E. J. Block in 1943. After the 1945 season, the Block was almost totally rebuilt. When the ship came out of the yard on September 18, 1946, it had a new diesel-electric engine, new fore and aft deckhouses, and all new auxiliary equipment and deck machinery.

  6.  John O. Greenwood, Namesakes of the Lakes (Cleveland: Freshwater Press, 1970), 200.

  7.  Cowles, 197.

  8.  Greenwood, 200.

  9.  The bulwark is a section of hull plating that extends above the main deck level, forming a sort of solid railing around the stern.

10.  Cowles, 197.

11.  Inland Steel still operates one straight-decker, the Str. Edward L. Ryerson. Launched in 1960, the Ryerson is even more aesthetically pleasing than the Sykes was when she was launched, and Inland officials have so far rejected proposals to convert her to a self-unloader.

12.  Telescope 14, no. 8 (September 1965): 210.

13.  Richard Wright, Freshwater Whales (Kent, OH: Kent State University Press, 1969), 254.

  1.  Pittsburgh Steamship finally decided to go ahead with the construction of four new ships in 1949, about the time that the Sykes was ready for launching. Pittsburgh’s AAA-class steamers, the John G. Munson, Arthur M. Anderson, Cason J. Calloway, and Philip R. Clarke, came out in 1952.

10.  Cowles, 197.

11.  Inland Steel still operates one straight-decker, the Str. Edward L. Ryerson. Launched in 1960, the Ryerson is even more aesthetically pleasing than the Sykes was when she was launched, and Inland officials have so far rejected proposals to convert her to a self-unloader.

12.  Telescope 14, no. 8 (September 1965): 210.

13.  Richard Wright, Freshwater Whales (Kent, OH: Kent State University Press, 1969), 254.

  2.  Walter C. Cowles, “A Decade of Great Ships: 1948–1958,” Inland Seas 45, no. 3 (Fall 1989): 197.

  3.  E. B. Williams, Kent C. Thornton, W. R. Douglas, and Paul Miedlick, “Design and Construction of Great Lakes Bulk Freighter Wilfred Sykes,” reprint of an article that originally appeared in Marine Engineering and Shipping Review (June 1950), 5.

  4.  Cowles, 197.

  5.  The Leopold was renamed the E. J. Block in 1943. After the 1945 season, the Block was almost totally rebuilt. When the ship came out of the yard on September 18, 1946, it had a new diesel-electric engine, new fore and aft deckhouses, and all new auxiliary equipment and deck machinery.

  6.  John O. Greenwood, Namesakes of the Lakes (Cleveland: Freshwater Press, 1970), 200.

  7.  Cowles, 197.

  8.  Greenwood, 200.

  9.  The bulwark is a section of hull plating that extends above the main deck level, forming a sort of solid railing around the stern.

Additional Information

ISBN
9780814343371
MARC Record
OCLC
1056021956
Pages
144-150
Launched on MUSE
2018-10-08
Language
English
Open Access
Yes
Creative Commons
CC-BY-NC
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